Today sees the start of this year’s National Heritage Week, the aim of which according to the Heritage Council (which coordinates the event) ‘is to build awareness and education about our heritage thereby encouraging its conservation and preservation.’ This is a laudable aspiration and merits everyone’s support. Heritage Week has encouraged some valuable initiatives. As of today, for example, St Lawrence’s Gate, a thirteenth century barbican originally built as part of the defences of Drogheda, County Louth (seen above) is to be permanently closed to vehicular traffic – something which should have happened many years ago – thereby ensuring its better protection. All counties in Ireland participate with enthusiasm in Heritage Week but once the seven days are over, many of our historic buildings revert to a condition of vulnerability. Below is a photograph of the former Church of Ireland church at Castlehyde, County Cork. Originally constructed in 1809 it further benefitted from the attention of George Pain in 1830. Having been closed for services, it has sat empty for some time and is now in imminent danger of collapse. This building is as much part of our heritage as St Lawrence’s Gate, and although likewise listed for protection has been allowed to slip into its present state. It would be beneficial if the goodwill engendered by Heritage Week were put to advantage to ensure more historic properties were given the support required to ensure their long-term future. Obvious ways to do so would be to use this high-profile annual event to highlight specific buildings at risk, and to campaign that local authorities enforce the law regarding protection of listed structures, something that with rare exceptions they currently fail to do so. As the state of the church in Castlehyde shows, until our legislation is matched by implementation every week needs to be Heritage Week.
Set into the eastern section of a wall surrounding St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth, the tombstone slab of a funerary monument dating from 1520 and commemorating Sir Edmond Golding and his wife Elizabeth Flemyng. Depicting the couple as cadavers, this stone would originally have sat on top of a free-standing tomb but was presumably moved to its present position when St Peter’s was rebuilt in the 1750s. Sections of the lower portion of the tomb can also be found elsewhere on the same wall.
During 2015 the Irish Aesthete will visit an Irish town once a month and comment on the state of its architectural heritage. January’s town is Drogheda, County Louth.
As has often been pointed out the name Droichead Átha – meaning Bridge of the Ford – indicates Drogheda is the final bridging point on the river Boyne three miles before it joins the Irish Sea. This made the place strategically important. Although St Patrick is said to have landed here and Viking raiding parties wintered in the area, Drogheda was only founded, as two separate towns on either side of the Boyne, in the late 12th century when Hugh de Lacy built a motte and bailey in the Millmount area. For two centuries rival corporations faced each other across the river but were united as one in 1412. As evidence of its prosperity, Drogheda was subject to raids by both the Scots and the native Irish, leading to the construction of walls some twenty feet high and with a circumference of more than one and a half miles. These defences were strong enough to repulse an attack in 1315-16 by Edward the Bruce’s Scottish army in 1316-16. The most visible remnant today is St Laurence’s Gate on the eastern side of the old town. While the medieval religious establishments were closed during the Reformation, otherwise Drogheda continued to blossom until caught up in the wars of the 1640s. In November 1641 the Irish Confederate army under Sir Phelim O’Neill laid siege to the town and three times attempted to take it, without success; eventually the following spring relief forces from Dublin forced O’Neill to retire. Seven years later the town was again besieged, this time by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army which after three days gained possession and slaughtered many of the citizens. But Drogheda recovered from this terrible event and thanks to a revival of trade enjoyed something of a golden age in the 18th century when some of its finest extant buildings were constructed. Commercial decline began in the second half of the 19th century and has continued ever since; with improved transport links, such as the arrival of the railway and then the car, Drogheda’s relative proximity to Dublin (less than 35 miles) has been to its disadvantage. The consequences of this are evident to anyone visiting the place.
As already mentioned, the most tangible attestation of Drogheda’s medieval defences is St Laurence’s Gate. The print at the top of this page, taken from John D’Alton’s History of Drogheda and its Environs (1844) shows how the gate, with its little toll houses on either side, looked in the first half of the 19th century looking eastwards up St Laurence Street with the old grammar school (of which more below) to the north and a series of handsome houses to the south. Originally built in the 13th century and St Laurence’s Gate survives but is difficult to inspect or appreciate, both because surrounded by a jumble of telegrath wires and other clutter, and because it is used by traffic as a point of entry from this side of the town. Immediately to the south on Featherbed Lane is a section of the old walls with its series of elliptical arches: both the walls and the lane are in poor condition and look as though little has been done for many years to improve their state. Moving northwards and to the periphery of the old town one reaches the Magdalene Tower, all that remains of the Dominican Friary founded by Lucas de Netterville, Archbishop of Armagh in 1224. It is likely to be of a later date, the upper windows judged to be from the early 14th century. At the end of the same century it was here that the Ulster chiefs acknowledged their submission to Richard II. Today it stands isolated amid housing estates. The Magdalene Tower’s environment is considerably better than that of Drogheda’s other medieval ecclesiastical remains, those of the Abbey and Hospital of St Mary d’Urso, aptly described by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan in 1993 as ‘a perfect expression of the State’s lackadaisical attitude towards its historic buildings.’ More than two decades later, nothing has changed. Found at the end of Abbey Lane, despite its central location the tower is surrounded by derelict buildings, rubbish and graffiti: an apt metaphor for how Drogheda treats its architectural heritage
After the depredations of the 17th century, much of Drogheda had to be rebuilt. But in addition the town’s regained prosperity encouraged something of a building boom as affluent citizens wished to live in better premises than had their forebears. One of the most notable additions of the period was Barlow House on Drogheda’s western perimeter. The building dates from 1734 when Alderman James Barlow married Althemia Leigh, daughter of another alderman and merchant; its prominence even at the time is attested by an appearance on Joseph Ravell’s map of the town which was produced in 1749. The architect is unknown but it has been attributed to both Richard Castle and Francis Bindon. Of three storeys over basement, and five bays wide with a stone eaves cornice, the focus of the house’s facade is a pedimented Gibbsian doorcase with the first-floor window above flanked by scrolled volutes topped by a segmental pediment. In the mid-19th century the building became a police station and continued being used as such until 1997. In 2000 a three-year restoration programme began and the house is now used as a venue by the local arts centre. Some thirty years after James Barlow began building his new residence and as evidence of the town’s mercantile prosperity, in 1765 Drogheda Corporation ordered the demolition of the old wooden tholsel and the construction of a new replacement. Completed in five years, this was designed by George Darley and faces onto two thoroughfares with a plain four-bay front on Shop Street and an entrance front around the corner on West Street. With an exaggeratedly high first floor this rises just two storeys before being crowned by a cupola tower ending in an octagonal belfry and dome. The Tholsell was converted into a bank in 1890 and continued as such until a few years ago: it is now a tourist office. Between them, the Barlow House and the Tholsel reflect the confidence and ambition of Drogheda’s citizens in the 18th century, qualities that are much less apparent in the town today.
At least both the Barlow House and the Tholsel survive. The fate of Drogheda Grammar School provides a salutary instance of how easily a town’s architectural heritage can be lost. This institution occupied what had been Mr Clarke’s Free School on St Laurence Street (founded 1669) and the neighbouring Singleton House. The former building begun in 1728 was attributed to Michael Wills who at the time worked as an assistant to Thomas Burgh. The latter, possibly designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, was built circa 1740 as a residence for Henry Singleton, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland; it contained one of the finest oak-panelled interiors in Ireland including a magnificent staircase. Both were used by the grammaer school until it moved to modern premises in 1975. Thereafter the two houses stood empty for several years until 1978 when a consortium of local businessmen set up a company called DGS Ltd. This acquired the old Grammar School for £70,000 and looked for an opportunity to demolish the buildings even though they had been listed since 1967 as ‘worthy of preservation.’ A small group of civic-minded local residents established the Drogheda Grammar School Preservation Committee in an effort to counter DGS Ltd’s systematic neglect, a policy based on the expectation that eventually the site would be deemed irreparably dilapidated. To add insult to injury in April 1980 the company claimed £12,500 from Drogheda Corporation for vandalism to the old Grammar School, a property the DGS Ltd had done nothing to protect. Indeed the local authority, while insisting it wanted the old Grammar School to survive and discussing the possibility of the buildings’ use as a public library, signally failed to utilise its statutory powers compelling the owners to safeguard listed properties. Over the next decade a series of court cases followed, during which the condition of the buildings continued to deteriorate. Then one Sunday morning in July 1989 a demolition contractor hired by DGS Ltd moved onto the site and proceeded to knock down the old Grammar School. The local preservation committee immediately went to the High Court in Dublin where the presiding judge issued an order preventing any further demolition or the removal of building materials and requiring the protection of the remains of the building. It proved to be a Pyrhhic victory, as the damage done during the unauthorised work was so great not even the original facade could be salvaged. Eventually a replica of this was built behind which DGS Ltd developed its intended shops and offices. This is what one sees today. What should have been a valuable tourist asset to all Drogheda and the surrounding region was obliterated so that a handful of speculators might gain.
Drogheda’s former prosperity deserted it some time ago: when Thackeray visited in 1842, he wrote of buildings on the main street being ‘in a half state of ruin and battered shutters closed many of the windows where formerly had been “emporiums”, “repositories” and other grandly-titled abodes of small commerce.’ He also described the town as dirty, a term that would not be out of place today: last week in the annual nationwide survey of towns organised by Irish Business Against Litter Drogheda had fallen to 35th place out of 40. The links between urban decay and litter, together with such associated problems as graffiti, are too well known to need repeating here. What really shocks a visitor to Drogheda is the flagrant neglect of the town’s historic fabric, the fact that so many old buildings are being permitted to fall into desuetude. There is scarcely a street in the centre which does not have several houses in advanced stages of the decay cited by Thackeray, and the consequences are inevitable: the property is not treated with respect, becomes subjected to vandalism, slips further into ruin and likely drags neighbours with it. After all, who wants to live or conduct a business in an area on its way down?
To pick one example of many possible, Fair Street, which has many fine 18th century townhouses and should be cherished, is today anything but fair in appearance despite the former Francis Johnston-designed Cornmarket having housed the local authority since the end of the 19th century: if those in charge don’t see the problems on their doorstep, what hope anyone else will? Likewise while Barlow House has been restored, many other buildings in the vicinity are in an advanced stage of decay, giving a very poor impression of the western entrance to the old town. With its enviably rich architectural history, Drogheda has the potential to rival Kilkenny in terms of becoming a popular tourist destination. It needs both literally and metaphorically to clean up its act and start appreciating the advantages it has been bequeathed. But at the moment, the town is failing to reap the benefits of its heritage, preferring instead to squander them. When explanations are sought as to why Irish towns should be in seemingly inexorable decline, Drogheda can provide a ready and regrettable explanation.
The picture above was painted by the Drogheda, County Louth artist Bernard Tumalti in 1844. It shows the interior as it then was of the town’s principal church, St Peter’s and therefore serves as an invaluable record of how the building looked before it was subjected to a number of changes later in the century. Among the most significant of these was the removal of the box pews in 1865 and the insertion of stained glass in many of the windows, not least that the great east window which dates from the following decade. At some point also the handsome line of hanging brass candelabra shown by Tumalti were also lost, another misfortune. As a result of these and other alterations to the church, its original character is no longer as easily discernible, not least the element of baroque theatricality that was manifestly intended as part of the design and which must have transformed services into performances.
St Peter’s has likely been the site of worship for as long as there has been a settlement in Drogheda. Situated just three miles from the mouth of the river Boyne, this is said to be the place where St Patrick landed in c.432 and a little over 850 years later the Norman knight Hugh de Lacy built a motte and bailey on the existing Viking fort. Not far away St Peter’s was established by de Lacy and given to Welsh Augustinian canons. It subsequently grew – as did Drogheda – to be one of the largest churches in the country and although various changes were made to the structure, St Peter’s survived relatively intact until the town was besieged by Oliver Cromwell in September 1649. Many citizens took refuge inside the church, but to no avail as it was set on fire and, after the occupants had been massacred, subjected to looting. Nevertheless enough of the medieval St Peter’s survived for it to continued in use as a centre of worship for another century.
According to the Vestry Minute Book, ‘In the Year one thousand seven hundred and Forty Eight, The old Parisk Church of Saint Peters Drogheda being in ruinous Condition and in danger of falling was Order’d to be pulled down which was done accordingly and a New Church begun to be Built in the room of the old one the same Year and Carry’d on ‘till finish’d by the Several Contributions Subscribed and pay’d by the undernamed Persons, And a Cess [levy] of Three Hundred Pounds only lay’d upon the said Parish.’ The new St Peter’s is believed to have been designed by Hugh Darley, member of a family which across more than two centuries worked as builders, stone cutters and architects. Hugh Darley’s best-known building is Trinity College Dublin’s Dining Hall erected in the early 1760s to replace Richard Castle’s earlier hall which had twice collapsed during construction and was eventually demolished after its vaults fell in while an adjacent kitchen was being built. The entry on St Peter’s in The Buildings of North Leinster by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan, having described the church as one of the best of its kind from the 18th century notes the handsome Palladian facade. This is of ‘three bays and two storeys of limestone ashlar, horizontally channelled, with a broad eaves pediment broken by the great central tower rising above it through two storeys. The tower is expressed as a giant round-headed entrance, a terse Diocletian window in the first floor and in the belfry stage corner pilasters, a round-headed opening, and above a Gibbsian bracketed oculus. Above all this rises a Gothic steeple added by Francis Johnston in the 1780s.’ The exterior of St Peter’s is austere and devoid of superfluous decoration. This makes the extravagance of its interior all the more surprising.
The interior of St Peter’s is classical in design, a long hall with galleries along the west, north and south sides carried on octagonal oak piers: these are continued on the upper level as Ionic columns. The surprise comes when one looks east to the chancel, the walls of which are smothered in elaborate plasterwork featuring garlands of fruit and flowers, cornucopiae, clouds and hovering above it all birds (possibly intended to represent eagles) with their wings spread wide. More late baroque than rococo in spirit, the chancel’s north and south walls are embellished with intricate plasterwork frames surrounding a pair of funerary monuments, one to Alderman Francis Leigh (d.1778), the other to the Rev. John Magee (d.1837). Both were evidently inserted some decades after the decoration had been completed and it remains a matter of conjecture who might have been responsible for this piece of bravura craftsmanship. Stylistic comparisons have been made between the plasterwork of St Peter’s and that in the drawing and dining rooms of Russborough, County Wicklow. Other parts of that house, most notably the saloon, have always been attributed to the Swiss-born Lafranchini brothers, Paolo and Filippo, who from the late 1730s onwards worked extensively in Ireland. However the character of Russborough’s drawing and dining rooms is more robust than that of the saloon, and it was art historian Joseph McDonnell in his 1991 book Irish Eighteenth Century Stuccowork and its European Sources who drew attention to the similarities between the decoration of these spaces and the church in Drogheda. McDonnell came up with the concept of ‘the St Peter’s stuccodore’ and more recently the same individual has also been credited with the plasterwork found in Glasnevin House, County Dublin. Across all these buildings the same vigorous ebullience is on display, suggesting the hand of someone who, like the Lafranchinis, came here from continental Europe.
The chancel’s plasterwork indicates little concern with the religious and indeed seems more suited to a domestic setting: while it lifts the spirits, they are not necessarily raised above the temporal. A certain effort has been made to remind the congregation that it is present for devotional purposes: in the plasterwork above the east window is a small panel bearing an inscription in Hebrew from Isaiah and translated as ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts’ and the open volumes that feature on either side are presumably intended to represent the gospels or some other scriptural text. But St Peter’s, in its original incarnation, must have borne more than a passing resemblance to the theatre: this is religion as drama, with the chancel substituting for stage and the main body of the building for auditorium. At least one of the other funerary monuments celebrates this ambiguity, that to the immediate south which celebrates Henry Singleton, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and Master of the Rolls who died in 1759: his memorial features an oval plaque in which a woman weeps over an urn, putti supporting an inscription and a portrait bust of the man himself sculpted by Thomas Hickey. As though conscious of the possibility for confusion between the sacred and profane, Hugh Darley designed the great east window in the gothic idiom, thereby leading the mind back to matters devotional. And that aspect was further accentuated by the reordering of the church over the course of the second half of the 19th century, notably the removal of the box pews (not unlike theatre boxes) and the insertion of stained glass into many of the windows. The effect was to play down the secular element, even if this was to the detriment of the decoration. St Peter’s remains a wonderful building and unquestionably among the very best churches erected here in the post-Reformation era. But imagine how much better it must have looked when painted by Bernard Tumalti in 1844.